Smoking out Helms' position on AIDS


SEN. JESSE Helms (Neanderthal-North Carolina) wants to slash federal money for AIDS victims because they contract the disease, he believes, from "deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct."

This is just ole Jesse funnin' again, gay-bashing as he does every so often when he's low and needs a pick-me-up.

If he really wanted to punish consciously unhealthy conduct, he'd be going after smoking.

But -- well, North Carolina, Jesse Helms and the tobacco industry are pretty much one and the same. Mr. Helms isn't about to bite the lobby that feeds him.

It costs Mr. Helms nothing, however, and helps endear him to his fans, to pretend he still believes, as almost no one else does any longer, that AIDS is a gay disease.

Of course, it is not. It is a disease, period. It has no sexual orientation. In most of the world it is mainly transmitted heterosexually, and it is spreading among heterosexuals here, too.

Many of its sufferers are infants and children, who haven't so much as thought about sex yet, not even the Helms-approved sort -- whatever, God help us, that might be. Others are good wives infected by bad husbands. Some contracted it from blood transfusions.

Maybe the senator would allow financial help for AIDS patients who can score over, say, 70 on some scale of Helmsian propriety.

Even if all AIDS victims were both homosexual and wanton beyond measure, any virus that destroys the human immune system and is as clever at asserting itself as this one is ought scare all of us into panic research, dollars be damned.

Mr. Helms complains that AIDS gets more federal money than good, patriotic, Bible-believing diseases like cancer and heart disease.

That's so if you only count money for prevention and research. If you include the federal money spent through Medicare and Medicaid, as the Public Health Service does, the funding breaks out this way: Heart disease $36.3 billion annually, cancer $16.9 billion, AIDS $6 billion.

But let's tarry a wee over Mr. Helms' premise.

If there's any case for whacking federal spending on diseases driven by deliberate, revolting conduct, Mr. Helms would be having a fit over Congress' deliberate, revolting indulgence of federal tobacco-support programs, running at about $100 million year.

Smoking is implicated in several cancers, most notoriously in lung cancer. The American Lung Association writes, "The No. 1 cause of lung cancer is cigarette smoking; it is responsible for an estimated 87 percent of lung cancer cases."

The American Heart Association says smoking doubles the risk of heart attack. The risk of death from heart disease is 30 percent higher for persons exposed to secondhand smoke at home.

Someone who had fallen deeply into the ways of cynicism might suspect Jesse Helms is making a lot of noise about homosexuals costing everyone a bundle in federal money to distract attention from the fact that smokers cost everyone far more.

But perhaps there's a more benign explanation. The Surgeon General didn't nail smoking as a health menace until 1964. Mr.

Helms, himself, isn't even up to the '50s yet.


Tom Teepen is a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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